Why is it Necessary to Learn Key Pali Words?

Original written before October 23, 2015; Revised March 4, 2017

I had not given this issue much thought until someone at an online forum pointed out in 2014 that I was using some Pali words and it was difficult to understand the meaning of those terms. This is an important point that has two aspects:

  • In the Arana Vibhanga sutta, the Buddha advised bhikkhus to explain the Dhamma by providing the MEANINGS and not to emphasize a given language. As long as one comprehends the concept, it does not matter what language is used.
  • However, on the other hand, we need to have a way to transmit the key foundational words for future generations without distorting the meaning of such words. And it is difficult to find suitable words in other languages for key words like anicca, anatta, and paticca samuppada.
  • I have explained the meaning of any Pali term I use. But for a first time reader, this could be a legitimate issue. Please use the “Search” button on the top right to locate relevant posts for any key word. There is a “Pali Glossary – (A-K)” and “Pali Glossary – (L-Z)“.

1. Buddha Dhamma is the most complex theory in the world; it encompasses all of nature’s laws. Even though its basic premises are not hard to grasp, if one needs to dig deeper, one needs to spend some time “learning the basics”, or the “fundamental ideas involved”.

  • Think about it this way:Can one learn algebra without knowing arithmetic?
  • The key is to learn the basic ideas well, words like anicca, anatta, bhava, etc. It is said that one could understand the Buddha’s message about existence just by comprehending anicca (which will lead to understanding of dukkha and anatta), and that is true.

2. There is another aspect too. If one learns the basic concepts in addition/subtraction or even quantum mechanics, it does not matter what language one uses to learn it. The key is to get the IDEA, not just learn the words. One can learn addition/subtraction or quantum mechaincs in ANY language, not by memorizing words but by understanding the key concepts.

  • When a child learns how to add/subtract, he/she has to learn the basic multiplication table and the procedures on how to use that knowledge in handling big numbers. After that he/she can solve any arbitrary problem involving big numbers.
  • In the same way, one needs to get the IDEAS embodied in some key Pali words, because many of those Pali words CANNOT be directly translated into other languages: They are highly condensed, each word packed with deep meanings.
  • In quantum mechanics, the word “quantum” embodies the subject; regardless of the language one uses, one knows what a quantum is. In the same way, one needs to know what “anicca” is. There is no other word for it in English.
  • Once one UNDERSTANDS the meaning of a certain key Pali word, then one may even be able to find a suitable word in any language to keep it in mind. There is no need to memorize Pali words for the sake of memorizing. It is similar to learning any concept.
  • We just should not change the original Pali words in the Tipitaka. That is the “blueprint” that need to be transmitted intact so that Buddha’s original message will be kept intact.

3. Let us first examine the reasons why Pali is a special language.

  • The Buddha delivered his discourses in Maghadhi language; a version of that language suitable for memorization (Pali) was used to SUMMARIZE those suttas. For example, Dhamma Cakka Pavattana Sutta was delivered to the five ascetics overnight. How many pages would it take to write all that down? Yet, it was condensed into a few pages.
  • In the old days suttas were orally transmitted generation-to-generation, and that was the other reason to condense it into a special form like a poem that is easy to remember and recite. The origin of the word “Pali” comes from that particular way of organization of the words.

4. Therefore, it may take several words in a different language to express the meaning of some Pali words like anicca, anatta, bhava, etc. Paticca samuppada is another whole phrase that is best kept intact and just learn what is meant by that phrase; see, “Paticca Samuppada – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppäda”“.

  • Thus most Pali words are impossible to be translated word-by-word to other languages. There is a system to glean the true meanings of the suttas as well as the deep subject of paticca samuppada; see, “Sutta – Introduction“.
  • This is the reason that many commentaries were written in the old days to explain the meaning of key words and phrases; see, “Preservation of Dhamma“ for details.
  • Unfortunately, most of those original commentaries (Sinhala Attakatha) cannot be found today, except for three; see the above post.

5. Most of the problems we have today are due to such “word by word” translation of suttas into other languages.

  • The most visible and disastrous translations are the translation of the words anicca and anatta into Sanskrit as anitya and anathma; these words were then ADOPTED in Sinhala language to express the meaning of anicca and dukkha. Then within the last two hundred or so years, those Sanskrit words were directly translated to English and now have become established to mean “impermanence” and “no-self”.
  • Incorrect translation of just those words have kept the message of the Buddha hidden for over fifteen hundred years. It is not an accident that there have not been that many Arahants during that time.
  • For the correct meanings of these words, see,  “Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta – Wrong Interpretations“ and the follow-up post.

6. In fact it is said that one can reach the Sotapanna stage by just comprehending the true meanings of anicca, dukkha, anatta, the three characteristics of the world. These three words have embodied in them a very broad message. Whole suttas were delivered to describe what was meant by those words! It is WRONG and DISASTROUS to just translate them as impermanence, suffering, and “no-self”.

  • But if one wishes, and knows the correct interpretations, one can dig much deeper to unimaginable depths. For example, there is a process involving 9 steps where a given citta starts off as a pure (pabhasvara) citta and gets “contaminated” before dying as a vinnana citta within a billionth of a second!
  • Even though I will eventually dig more deeper into Buddha Dhamma at the website, there is no need to go to that depth for most people (and many will not have enough time to do that anyway; but there could be a few who would really enjoy it).
  • I just want everyone to appreciate Buddha Dhamma for what it is, and to help remove many misconceptions that are out there today.

7. To summarize, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of UNDERSTANDING the meanings of key Pali words. It may take some time to truly grasp those meanings. I keep revising those key posts, whenever a better way to express an idea comes to mind or when someone else points out a better way to express it.Please do not hesitate to send comments/suggestions.

  • Experience is a key factor in understanding. The word “elephant” may not mean anything to someone who does not understand English. But if it is shown to him what an elephant looks like, then he can associate the word “elephant” with the big animal.
  • In the same way, it is important to UNDERSTAND what anicca means, by using one’s experience: for example, we cannot maintain even our body the way we would like for the LONG TERM, etc. Then you look at others, especially those who are even older than us, or those who died of old age, and realize that it is true. Then you think about anything in this world, and realize that it is true, i.e., we cannot maintain ANYTHING in this world to our satisfaction, and that is anicca.
  • Also see, “Sanna – What It Really Means“.

8. The following is a table with some key Pali words and links to a few posts that describe what those words mean. More posts probably can be found by using the “Search” button on the top right.

Next, “Origin of Morality (and Immorality) in Buddhism“, ..

Word  Links
Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta

Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta

Gathi, Bhava, jati

Gathi, Bhava, and Jati

Asava Habits, Goals, and Character (Gathi)The Law of Attraction, Habits, Character (Gathi), and Cravings (Asavas), Sansaric Habits, Character (Gathi), and Cravings (Asava)


Niramisa sukha Three Kinds of Happiness – What is Niramisa Sukha?How to Taste NibbanaNiramisa Sukha (Happiness Arising from Dissociating from the 31 realms)
Paticca Samuppada Paticca Samuppada – “Pati+ichcha”+”Sama+uppädaPaticca Samuppada – Introductio


Sankhara Sankhara, Kamma, Kamma Beeja, Kamma Vipaka
Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *